The Challenge of Distance Spacing in an Election Season

Mahmood Yakubu
Chairman of INEC, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu

Chuks Okocha writes that all stakeholders in the electoral process are eager to see how the electoral umpire, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) would ensure that political parties adhere to the COVID-19 protocol of distance spacing during campaign

Even if rancorous, the political parties involved in the Edo state governorship election have commenced primary elections to elect their flag bearers for the elections slated for September 19. A similar process is expected to take place in Ondo State.

If not for the outbreak of the Coronavirus, activities at the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) would be in top gear on how to conduct the polls in Edo state on September 19, while that of Ondo will take place on October 10, 2020.

In Edo state for instance, political parties were scheduled to conduct primaries between June 2 and 27, while the exercise would hold between July 2 and July 25 in Ondo state. Though, there are still chances that elections could take place as scheduled.

Similarly, public campaigns by various parties in Edo would begin on June 21 in Edo and July 13 in Ondo, while they are expected to end two days to the elections in both states.

The commission had said also that it would be conducting bye-elections in three constituencies as a result of the deaths of some serving members of the National and state assemblies. It also said that the Speaker of the House of Representatives had declared a vacancy in Magama/Rijau Federal Constituency of Niger State.

It further said that the Speaker of the Kwara State House of Assembly had declared a vacancy in Patigi State Constituency while the Speaker of the Sokoto State House of Assembly has declared the Kebbe State Constituency vacant.

The commission also said that these bye-elections will hold simultaneously in the three states of the federation adding the detailed timetable and schedule of activities will be published on its website and social media platforms shortly.

The earlier advertised dates have been over taken by the effects of the Coronavirus pandemic. New dates are expected to be announced by the commission.

Apart from these, there are outstanding by-elections in two senatorial districts in Bayelsa state to replace the governor and deputy governor who were senators before the November 16 2019 gubernatorial election. The incumbent Bayelsa state governor Douye Diri, represented Bayelsa Central while his deputy, Ewhrudjakpo, represented Bayelsa West.

INEC is also expected to announce dates to replace the vacancies as a result of the death of of the following senators, Ignatius Longjan, who represented Plateau South Senatorial District, Rose Okoh from Cross River State and Benjamin Uwajimuogu from Imo State.

INEC had fixed 17th of September for the end of campaign, stating that “Section 99(1) of the Electoral Act 2010 (as amended) provides 90 days for the commencement of campaigns by political parties and end of same 24 hours before polling day.”

INEC said that the tenure of the governors of Edo and Ondo States will end on 12th November 2020 and 24th February 2021 respectively and that this is pursuant to the provisions of Section 178(2) of the 1999 Constitution and Section 25(8) of the Electoral Act 2010, elections cannot hold earlier than 150 days and not later than 30 days before the expiration of the term of office of an incumbent governor.

Accordingly, the Commission had fixed Saturday 19th September 2020 as the date for the governorship election in Edo State and Saturday 10th October 2020 for Ondo State. Detailed Timetable and Schedule of Activities for the two elections, it said would be published on its website and social media platforms shortly.

One of the challenges posed by the Coronavirus pandemic is how to meet a vital protocol of COVID-19, which is distance spacing. Elections and campaigns always go together. It is like a market square activity. Campaigns are always inseparable from elections. The contestants have to go out to meet the electorate, soliciting their votes.

Even, during the primary elections, the electorate usually come to meet with the contestants, for a necessary session of mingling with each other. And this involves a lot of eating, dancing and noise making, usually under very heavily crowded atmosphere.

All these activities are almost impossible now as it would be difficult to carry out campaigns and rallies without people gathering. In some places, the success of politicians winning an election is always associated with the crowd that the politician or political parties is able to pool at campaigns.

In most cases, the gathering or political rallies can be likened to markets. There are issues like haggling and shouting. The big question now is how do politicians campaign, because the presence of a crowd is used to guage the success of political parties and their candidates in winning elections.

Candidates of political parties always brag about how many people attended their campaigns. In other climes like the United States and the United Kingdom, where electronic campaigns are in vogue, with billboards, elections are conducted without the type of the campaigns observed in our society. Nigeria and other sub-Saharan African countries have not attained the stage of campaigns through high powered electronic billboard.
How would the rice, sugar and other food items that have become staple tokens of exchange during electoral activities be shared?

What is in vogue in the Nigerian setting is the spectacle of crowded rallies. Many are waiting to see how campaigns would be conducted without rallies in this era of distance spacing.

INEC has not been specific on the resumption of its daily activities.
At its last meeting, the management of the commission put a limit on its staff that would be allowed to commence work.

The commission deliberated on protocols for the resumption of activities and operations, stating that staff above the age of 57 and others with serious underlining illness should not resume duty yet.

According to the spokesperson of INEC, Festus Okoye, “Only the staff below 58 years of age with no serious underlying health issues will resume, while pregnant women, nursing mothers and all other staff with underlying health conditions should remain at home for the time being.”

The commission, further explained that it had also discussed preparations for the conduct of the Edo and Ondo governorship elections and other pending legislative bye-elections.

According to Okoye, the commission will also resume engagement with political parties, civil society groups and organisations, the media and other stakeholders in relation to the Edo and Ondo state governorship elections.

“The modalities for these engagements will be worked out and considered at its next meeting.”

Okoye added that the commission will work out modalities for ramping up of activities in Edo and Ondo states where it has governorship elections and will liaise with the security agencies and health authorities on the resumption of work in the two states as soon as possible.

He said the commission would issue comprehensive guidelines for the first phase of its resumption in compliance with the directives of the federal government and health authorities, adding that these guidelines will be posted on its notice boards and uploaded on the website of the commission on Monday.

Other resolutions of the management of INEC included carrying out a comprehensive decontamination of its national headquarters, the annex at Blantyre Street, the Electoral Institute and its Area 10 office housing its staff clinic.

But how would these affect the preparation for all the elections lined up on its schedule of activities including the Edo and Ondo states governorship elections? How would its reviewed timetable conform to observance of protocols on Coronavirus?

One clear message from all the commission is saying is that the full resumption of activities would be based on the announcement by the Presidential Task Force on COVID – 19. And yet this is where the problem lies. The number of the infected Nigerians is on the increase with some calling for a fresh lockdown.
The commission recently updated the guidelines for voters during the two governorship elections in Edo and Ondo states. According to Prof. Okechukwu Ibeanu, the INEC national commissioner in charge of electoral operations, “Wearing of face mask at Polling Units and all election locations is mandatory. Please make provision for your own face mask. Face masks must be worn at all times, but an election official may request you to lower your mask for proper identification when necessary and anyone that is symptomatic to COVID-19 would be isolated immediately.” He explained hat voting starts by 8.30 am and stops at 2.30 pm.

He further said that, “There shall be two queues formed at each polling location (Polling Unit or Voting Point). The first queue (the outer queue) will be outside, from which an election official shall bring voters into the voting area in batches. The second queue (the inner queue) will be formed in the voting area.

“By 2.30 pm, an election official shall stand at the end of the outer queue indicating that the queue is closed. Any voter on the outer queue by 2.30 pm shall be allowed to vote. Queues must be orderly and voters on a queue must maintain a distance of two meters (6 feet) from each other.”

According to INEC, “Any voter showing symptoms of COVID-19 such as high temperature, coughing, sneezing, etc. will be requested to leave the queue or voting area and shall be attended to by designated officials.

“Please obey all directives by the officials to keep yourself and others safe. Report any health emergencies urgently to an official at the Polling Unit.
Avoid unnecessary touching of surfaces or leaning on walls and other surfaces at the Polling Unit. You may request for hand sanitizer which will be given to you if available.”

The commission said that, “an election official may ask to clean your fingers with an antiseptic before your fingerprint is read with the Smart Card Reader.
Please show your voters’ card to election officials whenever you are requested to do so.

After you cast your vote, move away from the voting area. If you wish to observe the counting of votes and announcement of result, you will be directed by an election official on where to stay”
It further requested voters to ensure that they go away with their used protective materials such as face masks and hand gloves, urging them not to litter the polling unit with it.

The commission asked voters to “Remember that cell phones or any other device that can take pictures are still not allowed in the voting cubicles.
Please obey all directives issued by election officials, including security officials, and be orderly at all times. INEC shall not tolerate assault of any election official and you may be prosecuted for doing so.”

What can INEC or the political parties do to ensure that distance spacing is observed? Popular sports like football, the National Sports Festival and the Olympics games have been cancelled till further notice. What will happen to these forthcoming elections on the schedule of INEC?

How would the rice, sugar and other food items that have become staple tokens of exchange during electoral activities be shared? What is in vogue in the Nigerian setting is the spectacle of crowded rallies. Many are waiting to see how campaigns would be conducted without rallies in this era of distance spacing. INEC has not been specific on the resumption of its daily activities